There’s a moment when you sit down at a restaurant, with the music just below the din of clinked glasses and conversation, the fluffed pillow behind your back, linen napkin on your lap, when your singular focus turns to that moment.
“Here,” the server says, “try this new Rioja we just got in, and wait until you hear about the snapper special.”
For those of us who make a hobby out of dining out, it’s a special moment. “Good to see you again,” the passing manager says, and the chef nods from the kitchen, remembering how last time you made a point to compliment her cassoulet on the way out.
We had far fewer of those moments this past year, many of our best meals instead arriving in Styrofoam or made on our own stovetops. But these days a whole lot more of us are venturing out, even in some cases booking up those favorite restaurants, maybe more so than before. Thank the ghost of Julia Child because we were worried for you for a while, chefs.
To see just how things are going in Florida’s restaurant industry, we checked in with a few of our favorites: chefs we’ve written about these past five years and a couple of new rising stars, including an up-and-comer out of Miami doing some of the most creative cooking around—without actually cooking.
Chef at Itamae
Maybe it was the New York Times Magazine that ruined it for us, those of us who knew the secret of the little Peruvian Nikkei sushi place that was serving up the most creative dishes inside a food hall in Miami. “Itamae is a study in balance: Contrasting flavors, textures and temperatures come alive,” Evan Benn wrote in the Times, and then instantly everyone knew.
The two chefs, sister and brother duo Valerie and Nando Chang, suddenly needed to expand. They spent more than a year picking the perfect spot, finding it just across the courtyard in the Design District. They planned to do an omakase menu, meaning sushi would be served piece by piece to customers sitting inches away from the chef and sometimes each other, in a space of just 600 square feet.
Then, yeah, 2020 made customers sitting inches away seem like a bad idea. Their new restaurant, as big as a walk-in closet, had no space for tables. Or a kitchen: They have no stove or fryer, just the sushi counter. So they pivoted, in a pretty huge way.
Instead, 29-year-old Valerie Chang says they make do with 10 tables spread out in the courtyard, under the dappled shade of coconut palms. With no heaters for chilly winter nights, no AC for the rest of the year and no overhang for Miami’s inconsistent rain, you might think the weather would have hurt business, but even when it was near freezing or blazing hot, those 10 tables still filled up. “Surprisingly, yes, people still come,” she laughs.
Without an actual kitchen, the siblings also figured out how to pull together a menu using just an induction burner. They came up with dishes that are at least as creative as the ones they did over in the food hall, like their take on a Caesar salad: little islands of iceberg lettuce with flying fish roe, ikura, breadcrumbs and a dressing with the umami punch of the Japanese fungus koji. The dish looks as pretty as a Japanese rock garden and tastes like nothing else, just pure inspiration. (When Chang hears that I liked it, she says, “Oh thank you! You had it?” Yes, twice, actually.)
This success, without space heaters, is just the start. The Changs are adding a dedicated dinner menu and brunch. They’ve also got dreams of other locations, maybe elsewhere in Florida.
Chang already knows what that’ll be, Peruvian soul food, inspired by the cooking of her grandmothers. She grew up in the surfer town of Chiclayo, and so when she thinks of grandma’s cooking, it’s pickles and beans from her mother’s side and “the best chaufa,” a Peruvian fried rice, from her abuela on her dad’s side.
She’s been telling friends about her idea. “People say, ‘You don’t know how to cook soul food,’ and I’m like, ‘Yes I do. What do you mean? I only cook with my soul.’”
Yes, she most certainly does.
Niven Patel was excited last we talked. He was planning a get-together, a socially distanced, pandemic-responsible party at his farm. “It has been too long,” he says, “since I’ve been able to do this.”
Out at the farm he runs in Homestead, which supplies his two restaurants with a whole lot of produce, he would host friends and family and investors. The farm has a wood-fired grill he built himself, and he’d have it roaring.
“That wood oven is a monster,” he says. “I can fit a 50 [to] 60-pound pig in there.”
For the party at his farm, he’d be testing dishes he’s been dreaming up for his third restaurant, Orno, coming sometime this year. The idea is a farm-to-table menu, like he’s done at his other restaurants, but his new place will be centered around grills burning real wood. He’ll have several cuts of steak, whole fish and a whole lot of roasted vegetables. Can you imagine heirloom carrots, tomatoes and cabbage coming straight out of the soil and into the oven? The cabbage especially, he says, is a vegetable that’s underrated. “I’m very excited about it,” Patel says.
That party on the farm in early February would be Patel’s first time picking up his head, looking around and thinking about what’s next. Up until then, for the past year, he’d been in survival mode. At the beginning of the pandemic, he’d lost his Design District outpost of Ghee. After that, he poured his energy into ensuring the original Ghee in Dadeland and the Coral Gables restaurant he opened in the height of the lockdown, Mamey, would survive.
In 2020, Patel says he went back to the way he operated when he opened his first restaurant. Instead of thinking constantly about what’s next and expanding, he concentrated only on quality control, and only when he had the two kitchens dialed in did he turn again to his new concept.
“It’s our time to throw a lot of darts in the dark and see what works and what doesn’t,” he says. “It’s refreshing to just be able to do that and escape from survival mode, you know?”
Two years ago, when Flamingo first talked to Patel, he told us about his grandmother warning him about culinary school: “What girl is ever going to marry you?” He talked about shucking oysters for one of his first jobs, even though he’s allergic to shellfish. He talked about working his way up here and in the Keys, about starting a farm-to-table Indian restaurant, Ghee, in Dadeland, serving vegetables he grew himself. Along the way he’s done something exceedingly rare for his industry: he gives the cooks who work for him basic recipes, but then it’s up to them to experiment, to change a dish if, say, the plantains are a bit starchy today or the jalapenos hotter than usual. Nobody does it that way, but it’s just Niven, thinking the way nobody else does.
In addition to the big oven on his farm, Patel has a collection of smaller wood-fired contraptions: a Japanese grill and stainless steel ones he brought back from a trip to India. Sometimes, he’ll remove smoldering coals from the big oven and add them to the smaller ones. The fires from the main oven power the others, all of them roaring and ready, finally burning bright again.
Chef and Partner at Prato and Luke’s Kitchen and Bar
Brandon McGlamery took a trip to Austin earlier this year, his first venture out of the state in a long while. He ate really well there, he explains. That wasn’t a surprise, considering it’s such a well-known food town, but what did come as a revelation was how different the food was from Florida.
It wasn’t that Austin’s cooking was better. It wasn’t more sophisticated, McGlamery explains, because Floridians are certainly well-traveled, well-versed in what defines a good dish. It was something else, he says, struggling to put his finger on it. Overly composed? Just simply too much?
Diners in Florida, he’s come to realize, like a dish that highlights good, simple ingredients. The way it should be, McGlamery says. Scan through McGlamery’s Instagram and you’ll see examples, like the Rhode Island fluke that he balanced carefully with pomegranate and mint so you could still taste the delicate fish. At Luke’s, the specials highlight the season, like a spring vegetable and endive salad they serve with aged cheddar, sunflower seeds, preserved lemons and a buttermilk dressing light enough that it doesn’t overpower the veggies. Or, at Prato, there’s the olive oil cake they top with orange crema, fresh strawberries and a drizzle of olive oil—high-quality ingredients balanced so that each one hits you.
It’s like that even more nowadays, McGlamery says. As we all venture out, “people are going to want really good food and simple stuff they can relate to,” he adds. They’ll also, more than ever, want the experience of a night out, not a counter-service quick meal but a well-paced one, with theatrics, that counts as not just sustenance but a leisurely distraction to everything else in our lives.
“When we’re fully out of this, people are going to have that desire again to be entertained. You look at dining out. It’s entertainment. Dining out will be the prize, the thing they desire again.”
I first visited McGlamery five years ago, and he talked about his culinary upbringing, working for Alice Waters and Thomas Keller before heading to Europe to work for Guy Savoy and Gordon Ramsay. Working in kitchens with Michelin-starred chefs helped prepare him for a random call in 2005 to come to Winter Park to open Luma on Park. The job was only supposed to last six weeks.
If you sit there and you’re doom and gloom, nothing positive comes out of that. If you have a positive outlook, you’re going to have a positive outcome.
— Brandon McGlamery
In September, he closed Luma on Park, ending a 15-year run after he was unable to negotiate a new lease. The toughest part about it might have been that the place was still doing well, and so closing it over a disagreement with the landlord stung. “Losing Luma was a blow, but that wasn’t us, that wasn’t our fault.” He’s still got his other two spots, Prato in Winter Park and Luke’s in Maitland, but this year he’s going to spend a lot of time thinking about what’s next. Lately, he’s been pondering an opening in the towns where he grew up, Naples and St. Petersburg, considering even relocating to get it going. He and his wife, though, can’t quite picture leaving Winter Park, a “little bubble of great people that just happens to be in the middle of Central Florida.”
For now, until he’s found that perfect new spot, he’s sinking his energy into the one thing he says makes or breaks a place—making sure his two spots are putting out great, consistent food every day, like the piled-high burgers at Luke’s, or the roasted cauliflower with snap pea verde or butternut squash ravioli at Prato. He’s also undeniably positive about the future of the restaurant industry in our fair state.
He says, with an optimism that’s totally contagious, “I think that’s the only way you can look at it. If you sit there and you’re doom and gloom, nothing positive comes out of that. If you have a positive outlook, you’re going to have a positive outcome.”
Chef and Owner at Indigenous
In the restaurant industry, the humble line chef is generally the grunt, the maker of salads, the maintainer of the grill station, charged not with creativity but consistency. That’s changed these days at Sarasota’s Indigenous.
The line chefs show up nowadays and Steve Phelps gives them a challenge: come up with something new this week, something we’ve never done before.
It’s a novel idea for Phelps, and the product of this last year, where restaurants were forced to switch to mostly takeout and figure out a way to lure customers back week after week. Phelps figured out the secret to getting them back was innovation, promoting something new that people need to come back and try.
When we first wrote about Phelps back in 2016, we found him working the crowd outside the 82-year-old cracker cottage that holds his restaurant, wearing a short-sleeved button-down and cargo shorts, checking on a customer’s Parmesan beignets with smoked cobia belly. “Aren’t we lucky it turned out to be such a beautiful night?” he said back then, talking about how lucky he was to serve people the food he makes and marveling at the late-afternoon light that filters into his restaurant. He talked about playing hockey at Ohio State, his dreams of becoming an orthopedic surgeon and how that all changed the day a reporter complimented the food he had made while working at his uncle’s restaurant.
He’s learned a lot this past year, especially the importance of constant innovation, and Phelps is optimistic that continuing this new way of business will ensure Indigenous comes back stronger than ever in 2021.
For Phelps, creativity doesn’t mean dishes that are overly chef-y. Consider specials like his cobia hot dog with ballpark mustard and sauerkraut, or the fish sando with “hyper-local” grouper, topped with pickled pineapple, smoked garlic aioli, slaw and Florida barbecue sauce that drips everywhere. His cooking is complicated and something you probably couldn’t do at home, but at the same time approachable, recognizable and enticing. Case in point: the nachos he tops with lionfish, guac, crema and jalapenos—they look like what you had watching the game but better, fresher, tastier.
When the restaurant business changed a year ago, Phelps admits his takeout game was inconsistent, but he’s figured it out now. Indigenous went left when a lot of other restaurants went right; while a lot of fine-dining restaurants were adding trays of penne and lasagna, Phelps believes people can make that stuff at home. So instead he streamlined and recrafted his menu into dishes that travel well, looking and tasting as good at home as if they’d been delivered by a restaurant’s food-runner.
The dining room is also busy nowadays, and Phelps can just feel it, that optimism. “We’ve got our floaties on, so we’re not sinking,” he says. “We’re going to be OK.”
Pastry chef at Kool Beanz Cafe
Two women had very different influences on Sylvia Gould when she was a child. First was her mother, whose Vietnamese heritage meant Gould defined home cooking as the taste of lemongrass, ginger and basil.
Then, on the opposite end of the culinary spectrum from pho and rice pancakes, there was the inspiration of her grandmother, who lived on a farm in Michigan and made desserts, cakes, fruit pies and cookies from scratch.
“My grandma would make German anise cookies called springerle that were pillows with crisp outsides, rolled out with a special rolling pin that had designs on it that would imprint into the cookies,” she says. “The rolling pin was used specifically for these cookies. The rolling pin always fascinated me along with strong anise that perfumed the square cookies.”
You’ll now taste both of those influences in Gould’s desserts at Tallahassee’s Kool Beanz Cafe. She likes to combine the desserts many of us know from our childhoods with flavors you wouldn’t expect, like lemongrass in a creme brulee and Persian saffron ice cream with rose water on a toffee date cake.
“I just like to take what we know, you know, the things that are familiar, and add some crazy twist,” she says.
The James Beard Foundation named Gould as a semifinalist in February 2020, and she says the attention it brought her—newspaper articles, customers congratulating her, all those write-ups online—was a total surprise. Then the pandemic hit, and she thought her skills wouldn’t be needed as much, figuring that in rough times, people would stop spending money on dessert, something she assumed was just a luxury. Instead, business picked up during the pandemic.
Gould came to realize people craved a slice of her sticky coconut cassava cake more than ever. They wanted, maybe needed, the comfort that comes from opening a box holding her coconut cream meringue layer cake. It was then that she realized what she does could provide people joy on a dark day.
“It’s always special baking for someone,” Gould says. “But I guess it was even more so this past year. People wanted the sense of comfort you get from a dessert.”